Monday, October 1, 2012

Hail! I am from the Northern Province. I wrote this…

By Darshanie Ratnawalli
“I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories…”
- Antagonist dialogue line from the movie 300-

Here is the storyline given in 'The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity'; “The Tamils of Sri Lanka evolved as a second ethnic group. Their evolution was parallel to that of the Sinhalese” (p 31). The start of the evolution goes back to the Early Iron Age (900-300 BC), which was a happening period. During it, ‘the Mesolithic people of the island came under new influences’ (p 56). Prakrit and Dravidian languages accompanied these influences (p147). Prakrit made rapid progress, acting as a lingua franca and unifying the various heterogeneous elements all over the island (p 101,102). The northernmost site offering evidence for unification by Prakrit is Periya-puliyankulam in Vavuniya. To the northeast, it’s Nacciyarmalai. Even Jaffna is represented through a Prakrit record made in Mihintale by a Diparajha (suggested as the ruler of Nagadipa by Paranavithane, with which suggestion Indrapala: 2005 agrees) (p 165).

Representing the diversity of the people being taken under the umbrella of unification by Prakrit are damedas and various groups/clans(of possible Tamil Nadu origin) like the ‘Baratas’, ‘Vel/Velas’, ‘Ayas’ and the people who used the Dravidian kinship term marumakan (changing into marumanaka by the 1st century CE) (p165-169).

Here, I have to interrupt the storyline and insert an explanation that Indrapala does not offer. The Prakrit phenomenon seems to have swept through the island like a whirlwind (or a cancer depending on your perspective), between 300 BC and 1st century CE, with Buddhism running through as the main motif. The evidence for this is the numerous (1234 were published by Paranavithana in Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol 1, some were published later, some remain unpublished) cave inscriptions in the Prakrit language and the Brahmi script, mainly recording donations to the Sangha. Five of these refer to donations by Damedas/Damilas. These are the earliest stone epigraphic records in Sri Lanka. The onset of the phenomenon coincides with the introduction of Buddhism to the Island by Mahinda in 300 BC as recorded by the Pali Chronicles.

The island elites local, foreign, North/South Indian origin seem to have fallen under this strong compulsion to record on stone in Prakrit. That a similar compulsion is not evidenced in Tamil points to a significant direction in the linguistic, cultural evolution of the island.

That they are all in Prakrit, while the contemporary lithic inscriptional record in Tamil Nadu is in old Tamil, marks Sri Lanka’s evolutionary divergence from Tamil Nadu. Despite positing a common cultural region encompassing SL and South India, Indrapala: 2005 lets this slip, in a Freudian way; “…The earliest stone inscriptions in Sri Lanka, datable to about the second century BCE are all in Prakrit. There are, however, traces of Dravidian-language influence in vocabulary and phonology. The earliest stone inscriptions in Tamil Nadu, also datable to the second century BCE, are in Old Tamil but betray influence of Prakrit. The graffiti on potsherds, whose dates have not been precisely determined but which belong to the EHP, are mostly in Prakrit with a few in Tamil as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. On the Tamil Nadu side the potsherd graffiti are mostly in Tamil with a few in Prakrit…”- (p 88-89).

While Indrapala: 2005 rhapsodizes about the unifying effect of the sea between South India and Sri Lanka, telling us that “…before the formation of the states (and even afterwards), people belonging to the same ethnic group would have lived on both sides of the Palk Strait. The IIla (Hela) and the Dameda in such a context, would have been freely moving between south India and Sri Lanka at the time we begin to get written records…”(p144), it’s impossible not to hear the strangled tones of the 1960s Indrapala ghost admonishing 2005 Indrapala; “But there was a difference! Even though freely moving, the same group acted differently on the two sides of the Palk Strait, reflecting the different linguistic climates. Tell this. Tell this..!” At this point, Indrapala of the 2000s would have succeeded in throttling this annoying ghost.

But luckily, he survives in JRAS/1969/Vol. Xiii and tells us that, Damedas in this side indited inscriptions in Prakrit, (the dominant language of the region), mentioning specially that they were Damedas, just like the Helas in the Tamil Nadu side indited inscriptions mostly in old Tamil, making special mention of their name ‘Illa”.

There is a strong parallel between Sigiriya and the Prakrit cave records. Just like the latter represents an expressionist compulsion in the earlier centuries, signifying a particular cultural/linguistic direction, the former represents a compulsion (about seven centuries later), for all Toms, Dicks, Harries and Janes (both elites and not so elites) from all over the island to express themselves in a certain language, once more pointing to a particular cultural/linguistic direction. More next week.

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